Spring Preview

 

(This 835th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on March 25, 2007.)

 

Northern Pintail

Photo by David Ruppert

 

Even after this shortest winter in history, it was wonderful to enjoy a break in the weather on March 13. Mike Galas and I headed for Lake Ontario.

 

It could hardly have been a better morning for birding: clear and crisp with only a light breeze. The lake was quite different from my last visit. Then six foot whitecaps drove against piers. On this day the shore was still deeply lined with ice and there was much floating ice as well, but the lake surface was smooth.

 

For the first time in two months I didn't need gloves.

 

This is the time of year when there are still many winter birds around but the spring migration is beginning in earnest and we can add many birds to our year lists.

 

At our first stop Mike pointed out one of these "new" species. There it was atop a spruce tree, its black robin-sized body and long V-shaped tail identifying it as our first grackle of the year, the only one of these nest-robbers I would appreciate. Within minutes we saw dozens more. Small flocks were stopping briefly to feed and then moving on. By morning end we had seen at least a hundred.

 

The winter aggregations of starlings were still in evidence, but now some of the flocks were mixed. Red-winged blackbirds and cowbirds had joined the crowd. And in several marshes individual red-wings had already separated and were perched, singing out loud konkaree calls to mark their territories, their shoulders puffed up to exaggerate the red and yellow.

 

In one case a second red-wing was having none of this. As he flew up, the displaying bird beat a hasty retreat. Evidently the newcomer was higher on the pecking order, but the displaced bird would just move on to the next marsh.

 

Many robins cheery-uped merrily and a flock of several dozen blue jays screamed at each other. A group of five flickers alternately drummed and called from a single oak.

 

The best land bird of the morning turned up in a pine woods in Golden Hills State Park. We were looking for the two long-eared owls that Richard Salembier had found there a few weeks earlier. Mike found regurgitated owl pellets under one tree but we did not find the owls. As I worked my way through spiny fronds of multiflora rose to get out of the woods, however, I came across a bird in the shadows that I first took to be a robin. Its spotted breast drew a more careful look. And indeed it turned out to be a hermit thrush. Whether this was an early migrant or an overwintering bird I do not know.

 

The bright morning light and the calm waters made lake watching a pleasure and many birds added to that pleasure. Mike quickly located and pointed out a red-necked grebe, several horned grebes, a lesser scaup, a red-throated loon and our third scoter species, the black scoter. We had seen white-winged and surf scoters in Dunkirk Harbor a few weeks earlier. Later we had excellent views of another red-throated loon quietly diving in Wilson Harbor.

 

Meanwhile I picked out several beautiful male pintails and hooded mergansers, two of the handsomest of our waterfowl. Also among the migrants were tundra swans and American wigeon, but small numbers of winter ducks -- buffleheads, long-tailed ducks, common and red-breasted mergansers -- had not yet moved north.

 

Despite the problems we have with Canada geese, their honking calls are a central part of the spring experience. The birds we observed on the lake and in nearby fields were very likely migrants anyway. As we watched a group of them side-slipping down into a cornfield, Mike called out, "Snows," and indeed incoming with the Canadas were a half dozen snow geese. Among the snows were four blue-phase geese, birds formerly considered a separate species. I find the blues more attractive. They have a soft blue-gray body with only the head white instead of the all white of the snows.

 

This is also the time of year when raptors migrate but we only saw several dozen turkey vultures, a species that has become increasingly common in recent years.

 

It was one of those mornings that is so often rightly described as a great day to be alive.-- Gerry Rising